Transcript: Mac Barnett on Why a good book is a secret door at TED Talk

Or people go to London and they visit Baker Street to see Sherlock Holmes’ apartment, even though 221B is just a number that was painted on a building that never actually had that address. We know these characters aren’t real, but we have real feelings about them, and we’re able to do that. We know these characters aren’t real, and yet we also know that they are.

Kids can get there a lot more easily than adults can, and that’s why I love writing for kids. I think kids are the best audience for serious literary fiction. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with secret door novels, things like “Narnia,” where you would open a wardrobe and go through to a magical land. And I was convinced that secret doors really did exist and I would look for them and try to go through them. I wanted to live and cross over into that fictional world, which is — I would always just open people’s closet doors. I would just go through my mom’s boyfriend’s closet, and there was not a secret magical land there. There was some other weird stuff that I think my mom should know about. And I was happy to tell her all about it.

After college, my first job was working behind one of these secret doors. This is a place called 826 Valencia. It’s at 826 Valencia Street in the Mission in San Francisco, and when I worked there, there was a publishing company headquartered there called McSweeney’s, a nonprofit writing center called 826 Valencia, but then the front of it was a strange shop. You see, this place was zoned retail, and in San Francisco, they were not going to give us a variance, and so the writer who founded it, a writer named Dave Eggers, to come into compliance with code, he said, “Fine, I’m just going to build a pirate supply store.” And that’s what he did. And it’s beautiful. It’s all wood. There’s drawers you can pull out and get citrus so you don’t get scurvy. They have eyepatches in lots of colors, because when it’s springtime, pirates want to go wild. You don’t know. Black is boring. Pastel.

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Or eyes, also in lots of colors, just glass eyes, depending on how you want to deal with that situation. And the store, strangely, people came to them and bought things, and they ended up paying the rent for our tutoring center, which was behind it, but to me, more important was the fact that I think the quality of work you do, kids would come and get instruction in writing, and when you have to walk this weird, liminal, fictional space like this to go do your writing, it’s going to affect the kind of work that you make. It’s a secret door that you can walk through.

So I ran the 826 in Los Angeles, and it was my job to build the store down there. So we have The Echo Park Time Travel Mart. That’s our motto: “Whenever you are, we’re already then.” And it’s on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Our friendly staff is ready to help you. They’re from all eras, including just the 1980s, that guy on the end, he’s from the very recent past. There’s our Employees of the Month, including Genghis Khan, Charles Dickens. Some great people have come up through our ranks.

This is our kind of pharmacy section. We have some patent medicines, Canopic jars for your organs, communist soap that says, “This is your soap for the year.” Our slushy machine broke on the opening night and we didn’t know what to do. Our architect was covered in red syrup. It looked like he had just murdered somebody, which it was not out of the question for this particular architect, and we didn’t know what to do. It was going to be the highlight of our store. So we just put that sign on it that said, “Out of order. Come back yesterday.” And that ended up being a better joke than slushies, so we just left it there forever.

Mammoth Chunks. These things weigh, like, seven pounds each. Barbarian repellent. It’s full of salad and potpourri — things that barbarians hate. Dead languages. Leeches, nature’s tiny doctors. And Viking Odorant, which comes in lots of great scents: toenails, sweat and rotten vegetables, pyre ash. Because we believe that Axe Body Spray is something that you should only find on the battlefield, not under your arms.

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And these are robot emotion chips, so robots can feel love or fear. Our biggest seller is Schadenfreude, which we did not expect. We did not think that was going to happen. But there’s a nonprofit behind it, and kids go through a door that says “Employees Only” and they end up in this space where they do homework and write stories and make films and this is a book release party where kids will read. There’s a quarterly that’s published with just writing that’s done by the kids who come every day after school, and we have release parties and they eat cake and read for their parents and drink milk out of champagne glasses. And it’s a very special space, because it’s this weird space in the front. The joke isn’t a joke. You can’t find the seams on the fiction, and I love that. It’s this little bit of fiction that’s colonized the real world. I see it as kind of a book in three dimensions.

There’s a term called metafiction, and that’s just stories about stories, and meta’s having a moment now. Its last big moment was probably in the 1960s with novelists like John Barth and William Gaddis, but it’s been around. It’s almost as old as storytelling itself. And one metafictive technique is breaking the fourth wall. Right? It’s when an actor will turn to the audience and say, “I am an actor, these are just rafters.” And even that supposedly honest moment, I would argue, is in service of the lie, but it’s supposed to foreground the artificiality of the fiction. For me, I kind of prefer the opposite. If I’m going to break down the fourth wall, I want fiction to escape and come into the real world. I want a book to be a secret door that opens and lets the stories out into reality.

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